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How to design a contemporary garden

Martyn Cox / 20 August 2015

Find out how you can transform even the smallest garden into a contemporary space - ideal for anyone wanting a low-maintenance garden.

Contemporary garden
Simple structures and palms or grasses help create a stunning contemporary garden

A run-of-the-mill courtyard can easily be turned into an eye-catching, contemporary garden. These gardens have a strong, structural backbone using clean lines and geometric shapes to create an unfussy look that will provide sculptural interest all year round.

The epitome of an outdoor room, a contemporary-style garden is perfect for anyone who likes a garden with distinct aesthetics or who would rather spend their time enjoying their garden, than dedicating hours to maintaining it – this is largely due to a restrained planting scheme using undemanding architectural grasses, shrubs and trees, rather than masses of pernickety perennials.

Use your garden design to extend your home

More than any other type of a garden, a contemporary courtyard should be treated as an extension to your home. 

If you have French doors that open directly from the back of the house into the garden, then ensure that everything flows seamlessly together by using the same shape, colour and type of stone, both indoors and out. Bare brick walls are fine, but those that are rendered then painted a similar shade to those inside will help it marry in perfectly.

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Geometric structures in a contemporary garden

Keep the structure simple, using squares, diamonds or rectangular shapes, rather than anything curvaceous. Place raised beds or rectangular borders around the perimeter to keep the central area free from clutter.

Treat a really tiny courtyard as an ‘open plan room’. Those with a bit more space can delineate it with containers or rectangular beds running along the width of the garden.

Another way to divide the courtyard is to use different surfacing materials. A stone patio at the back of the house could lead to a deck or gravelled area. It’s not worth creating a pocket sized lawn using real turf, but if you really want something verdant, try artificial turf edged with stone or oak. This material does look a little fake to begin with but will weather in beautifully.

Find out how to create a Chelsea-style show garden

Contemporary garden

Perfect plants for a contemporary garden

There’s no shortage of plants suitable for a contemporary courtyard. 

Palms, bamboos, hardy succulents, evergreen grasses, clipped topiary shapes and other architectural specimens will provide a long-season of interest for very little effort. 

If you want to add a splash of colour, go perennials with structural foliage, such as irises, eryngium and hemerocallis. Make life easy by setting up an automatic watering system with a timer fitted to an outdoor tap.

Growing plants in pots

Pots will add a decorative touch to a contemporary garden. Opt for simple, elegant containers with a sculptural quality, or use angular shapes that complement sharp, geometric designs. Avoid overly ornate or traditional pots which will jar with a modern setting. Those made from smooth stone, polished metal or synthetic materials are perfect. 

Tall, rectangular containers look great teamed with contrasting spiky or feathery foliage, while low cubes make ideal homes for lollipop-shaped standard trees or the curved outline of a dome of clipped box.

Find out more about growing plants in containers

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.